Documents shed new light on crash that killed three farm workers and sparked federal investigation

On the evening of November 29, 2019, 16 workers working on a Christmas tree farm picked up their paychecks and piled into a van to drive home. In northern Salem, their van collided with a truck, killing three and injuring eight migrant farm workers. Attention to the accident was renewed last month when the US Department of Labor announced sanctions against a Salem contractor. Documents obtained by Salem Reporter present new details about what happened that night.

A roadside memorial to three farm workers – Andres Alonzo-Canil, Miguel Alonzo-Lucas and Diego Lucas-Felipe – who died in a car crash in 2019 (Jake Thomas / Salem Reporter)

The stop in Salem was only to be brief for the 16 seasonal workers.

They had worked all day loading Christmas trees onto delivery trucks at a farm in Corvallis and now at the end of the week they were driving to the homes they shared in Woodburn and Gervais.

But first it was payday.

The van carrying them all pulled up to their boss’s home in Northeast Salem, where they pocketed their paychecks and settled in to return home.

But minutes and a mile away, three of them are believed to have died and eight injured in one of Salem’s worst recent road crashes of recent times.

The accident between the 2006 Chevrolet Express pickup truck carrying workers and a Ford F350 pickup truck driven by a 19-year-old Salem man happened on the evening of Friday, November 29, 2019, at the intersection of Northeast Sunnyview and Cordon Roads.

The collision reappeared in the news last month when federal regulators announced they were penalizing the Salem company that hired the men. And documents released to Salem Reporter by the Marion County Sheriff’s Office as part of a public records request provided never-before-disclosed details of what happened in the final moments leading up to the collision. .

A year and a half later, a memorial remains at the intersection with flowers, crosses, empty cans of Modelo beer and photos of the men who died in the crash – Andres Alonzo-Canil, 41; Miguel Alonzo-Lucas, 39, and Diego Lucas-Felipe, 18.

They worked for JMG Labor Contractor, an agricultural labor supplier owned by Jose Mota Gonzalez de Salem. Last month, his company settled a US Department of Labor investigation for $ 32,500.

As Christmas approached, Mota employees were working long hours at Holiday Tree Farms, a producer of Corvallis Christmas trees sold at Home Depot and Costco stores.

Mota said he didn’t know the Corvalli crew well, but they were good workers. As they worked in damp conditions harvesting Christmas trees, Mota said he brought them food for Thanksgiving, including chicken, mashed potatoes and soda.

Salem Reporter was unable to reach surviving workers or the families of those who died that November night. But the documents provide some details of what happened.

Police records show that of the 16 workers, four lived together in a house in Woodburn and two in another in the town. Four lived in a house in Gervais and two others in a different house in the city.

A photo of a fatal accident at the intersection of the intersection of Northeast Sunnyview and Cordon Roads on November 29, 2019 (Courtesy / Marion County Sheriff’s Office)

After stopping for checks at Mota at around 7:10 p.m., Ezequiel Pablo-Gaspar drove the van east on Northeast Sunnyview Road, aiming to get to Cordon Road for the north swing, probably heading towards Interstate 5 and the house.

He later told police that he had drunk a beer while he was arrested (Mota insists there was no beer consumed at his house) and that a subsequent blood test was taken. Salem Hospital put his blood alcohol level at 0.03, below the Oregon limit of 0.08. He was driving even though his license was suspended, according to reports.

In the van, one man was on the phone, another was dozing. They were seated in four rows – the driver and a front passenger, and the rest arranged in the three rows of seats in a platform designed to carry 15 people. They were between 14 and 64 years old.

Pablo-Gaspar, a migrant from Guatemala, saw a green light at the intersection he intended to turn – an area of ​​farm fields and houses.

The witnesses differed on the light. Pablo-Gaspar insisted the light was a green circle, meaning it would have been a green light for vehicles coming the other way to cross the intersection.

A passenger in the van and a witness to the crash told MPs the signal was the green arrow, meaning Pablo-Gaspar would have been free to turn after oncoming traffic was held up by a red light .

MPs concluded in their inquiry that Pablo-Gaspar was right – and that he disobeyed a traffic light by turning when he did.

He told MPs he had never seen the white Ford arrive at the van at 55 mph.

Cory Kudna, the driver of the truck, said he had a green light but the van turned in front of him, giving him no time to react. He was not injured.

The Ford struck the passenger side of the van. Police found no sign of braking by either vehicle.

The collision “bent, twisted and forced back” the front passenger compartment of the van towards a row of passengers in the vehicle. Pablo-Gaspar was not injured.

Diego Alonzo-Perez, 14, later told MPs through a translator at Salem Hospital that he was sitting in the fourth row of the van at the time of the collision, with glass projecting into the cabin. He looked and saw his father, Miguel Alonzo-Lucas, 39, face down with his hat on his head. He was dead.

Police, firefighters and medics responded, finding passengers dead and injured. Three of the passengers had disappeared from the scene, likely fearing they would be arrested for evading federal immigration scrutiny in California.

MPs found Andres Alonzo-Canil stuck in the front seat, dead. Lucas-Felipe, sitting behind him, was also trapped and died where he was sitting. They always had their paycheques in their pockets.

Investigators found open cans of Modelo beer in the van.

They struggled to communicate with survivors as they re-enacted what had happened.

“It was difficult because none of the passengers in the van spoke English and the scene was very chaotic,” Sheriff’s Deputy Jessica Van Horn wrote in her report.

MPs interviewed passengers treated at the hospital and then followed them to their homes.

According to the report by Deputy Doug Bush, Pablo-Gaspar said unharmed passengers left the scene of the crash because they were wanted by U.S. immigration and customs services after cutting their surveillance bracelets in California. Pablo-Gaspar gave MPs an address for a house in Woodburn.

Bush went to the house to interview the passengers. He wrote that he could see movement inside the house but the lights went out as soon as he knocked on the door. He left the Woodburn house to knock on the door of another Gervais house to locate other passengers from the crash.

“Again I knocked and I could see someone looking out the window through the blinds,” he said.

But no one opened the door.

The deputies visited the workers at the hospital in an attempt to recreate what had happened. Jose Baltazar-Lucas at the time was in critical condition at Portland Oregon Health and Science University Hospital and at least seven others were released after being treated at Salem Hospital for their injuries.

MPs found Diego Lucas-Perez, 49, a passenger in the vehicle confused as to why he was in Salem hospital. He had no recollection of the accident and believed he had just arrived in the United States for work.

Men like Lucas-Perez are part of a fluid but crucial workforce transforming Oregon’s crops and livestock.

According to state figures, approximately 174,000 migrant and seasonal workers and their families are integral to Oregon’s multibillion-dollar agriculture sector. They play a particularly vital role in Marion County, which is the most agriculturally productive in the state.

The US Department of Labor concluded that JMG Labor violated federal labor laws because the van driver did not have a valid license or insurance and the company allowed workers to be transported without permission required. The company was also operating without active registration as an agricultural labor contractor, according to the ministry.

Mota said the sanction was unfair. He said he was late in renewing his registration, but that did not cause the accident.

“The van was not mine. They weren’t under my responsibility (insurance), they weren’t on working hours, ”he said. “I don’t provide transportation; I provide work. ”

According to records, Mota arrived at the accident, cooperated with the police, and gave them a list of people who had recovered their paychecks. Mota said he was in the hospital the night of the accident and helped each family financially, sending money to Guatemala, where some of the workers came from.

“They make me feel like I’m the bad guy,” he says. “Some workers came to me and said, ‘Why did they do this to you? You are one of the best entrepreneurs we work for. “

Reyna Lopez, executive director of Woodburn-based farm workers union Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, recalled how her family moved to the Salem area so her father could work on Christmas tree farms.

She described how the job left her father with severe back pain that required him to wear braces. Other workers have been injured while working in the industry and some have even died on the job, she said.

Lopez hopes the accident will lead to a shift in work culture towards a culture of compliance and safety to protect workers.

While she said she could sympathize with the contractor, she said companies that hire migrant labor should make sure they are up to date on their licenses and have protocols for security so that workers can return home safely. She said if there were obstacles to compliance, regulators should work to help remove those obstacles.

“My heart is frankly broken for the tragedy of these families and for Mr. Mota,” Lopez said. “Nobody wanted this. It hurts everyone.

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @ jakethomas2009.

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